The players feel more comfortable around the second-year coach. The quarterback feels more comfortable with the offense, acknowledging periods of confusion a year ago. The coach feels comfortable enough with the school that he's moving into the district in a month.
It seems many associated with the North Allegheny program have found a comfort level this season. That might help take the Tigers to a level they haven't often seen.
Many are pegging North Allegheny the team to beat in the new Northern Five Conference this season. It seems like a logical choice as coach Art Walker has a number of returning starters from a team that won its final four regular-season games and lost to Woodland Hills, 7-0, in the first round of the playoffs. The Tigers are the Post-Gazette's No. 5 WPIAL Class AAAA team.
North Allegheny hasn't won a conference championship outright since 1994. The Tigers, under former coach Jim Rankin, tied for the conference title in 2001 and 1996.
"The good thing was we ended very positively last year," Walker said. "If it would've gone the other direction at the end of the year, the offseason would've been much more difficult. But the kids really worked hard in the offseason and they're expectations are higher this season. It wasn't me demanding it. It was them wanting to be better."
Walker came to North Allegheny last year after a successful stint at Central Catholic, winning WPIAL and PIAA titles in 2004. He was 61-23 in seven seasons at Central Catholic, but he had an inauspicious beginning at his new school as the Tigers started last season 1-4.
"Last year was totally different," North Allegheny quarterback Adam Neugebauer said. "We were just learning his offense and we were confused. We didn't know what we were running. The expectations were a lot different last year, too. We were hoping to just get in the playoffs last year. This year, we're hoping to make a big impact in the playoffs."
Eighty-two players are on the team this season, about a dozen more than last year.
"I think Coach has more confidence this year," Neugebauer said. "I think he knows what North Allegheny is about now. I think he understands what it is ... I don't think he understood us as much last year. Like, I don't think he understood how big the rivalry was between North Allegheny and North Hills."
Walker will learn plenty more about the district in the future as he and his wife and two young sons will move from their South Fayette home into the North Allegheny district next month.
"Who knows? I might coach my kids someday," said Walker, who also is an English teacher in North Allegheny's district.
Neugebauer (6-1, 185) is one of the best quarterbacks in Class AAAA. As a junior, he completed 117 of 230 passes for 1,556 yards and 13 touchdowns.
North Allegheny's top two receivers from a year ago -- Billy Knight and Nick Henderson -- graduated. But the Tigers have a talented fullback in Marek Lapinski, who rushed for 257 yards.
Lapinski also is one of the leaders on defense at linebacker. Brothers Corey (LB) and Zach Watts (DL) are juniors who were second-team all-conference a year ago. Senior Tom Keiser (6-4, 240) is one of the conference's best linemen.
NORTHERN FIVE DATA
TEAM TO BEAT
North Allegheny If a solid, experienced quarterback means a lot in high school football, then the Tigers are in good shape. Senior Adam Neugebauer (6-1, 185) completed 117 of 230 passes for 1,556 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Neugebauer is one of six returning starters on offense. His top two receivers have graduated and the Tigers are inexperienced at halfback. But senior Marek Lapinski (6-1, 215) is a fullback worth watching. The Tigers have experienced linemen, led by Chris Pottmeyer (C/DE 6-1, 235), Austin Fedell (OL/DL 6-1, 245) and Tom Keiser (TE/DE 6-4, 240). Tim Lotz (LB 5-11, 190) is one of five returning starters on defense.
North Hills The Indians won't be as strong as they've been in recent years but still should be near the top. Do-it-all quarterback Ryan Lehmeier graduated. Senior Andrew Heck (6-3, 190) will take over after playing only safety last year. Senior Mike Rainey-Wiles (RB 5-9, 165), one of the best track and field athletes in the WPIAL, rushed for 548 yards on 61 attempts last season. Junior Ed Reith (HB 5-11, 185) also showed promise last season. Defense is a question.
Butler Coach Garry Cathell believes this is the year the Golden Tornado can turn the corner and make the playoffs for the first time since 1998. Nick Monteleone is one of the WPIAL's top quarterbacks, throwing for 2,971 yards the past two seasons. He was 139 of 257 for 1,793 yards last season and also rushed for 447 yards on 132 carries. Monteleone has his top two receivers from last season -- Andrew Strutt (43 catches) and Jordan Roycroft (48 receptions).
Shaler Senior tight end-defensive end Will Moushey hasn't received much publicity, but is one of the top linemen in the conference. Jon Fitzpatrick was the second-leading rusher last year with 365 yards on 60 carries.
Seneca Valley Five starters return on offense and eight on defense. Senior two-way tackle Don Barclay (6-5, 290) has committed to West Virginia. The Raiders have some other experienced linemen -- seniors Stewart Myers (OT/DE 6-3, 237) and Shawn Eagle (TE/DE 6-3, 235). Ted Pynos (QB, 6-4, 210) takes over for Kevan Smith, who is now at Pitt.
Erie McDowell The Trojans play in District 10, but they will play all the teams in the Northern Five Conference, and that could have an effect on which teams make the playoffs.
FIVE TO WATCH
Don Barclay, Sr., Seneca Valley, OT/DT, 6-5, 290; Nick Monteleone, Sr., Butler, QB, 6-3, 195; Will Moushey, Sr., Shaler, TE/DE, 6-4, 250; Adam Neugebauer, Sr., North Allegheny, QB, 6-1, 185; Mike Rainey-Wiles, Sr., North Hills, WR/RB/DB, 5-9, 165.
GAME OF THE YEAR
North Allegheny at North Hills, Oct. 27.